It's difficult to think of another indie-pop record in the past 20 years as influential and surrounded by romantic lore as Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Frontman Jeff Mangum, then part of Athens, Ga.'s legendary Elephant Six collective, spun timeless tales of love, longing, and loss, shot through the imagined prism of Anne Frank's gaze. The quivering timbre of his distinct vocals magically split the difference between debilitating sorrow and soaring optimism, creating an achingly humane tone with as much rawness as sparkle. Combining that sound, and the record's eclectic, carnival-band/funeral-dirge instrumentation, with the viewpoint of a 16-year-old Jewish Holocaust victim created an endlessly absorbing record that enjoys a rabid cult of fans to this day—even though Mangum all but disappeared (save for extremely rare and unannounced public appearances or brief collaborations with other Athens-based artists) shortly after touring behind the album.
Wolf Parade With Moools. Showbox at the Market, 1426 First Ave., 628-3151, showboxonline.com. $21 adv./$23 DOS. All ages. 8 p.m. Mon., July 26.
Consequently, there have been running threads of speculation not only about whether NMH will ever fly again, but, perhaps more practically, what it would have sounded like had it kept going. More than 10 years later, Mangum's mortal ghost can be heard haunting artists like Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, and—perhaps most subtlely and unexpectedly—the eerie, atmospheric shades that color the work of Montreal's Wolf Parade, the Sub Pop band that released their third full-length album, Expo 86, last month.
Formed four years after the dissolution of NMH, Wolf Parade is the shared vision of keyboardist/vocalist Spencer Krug (previously of Frog Eyes) and guitarist/vocalist Dan Boeckner (former frontman for B.C.-based band Atlas Strategic), propelled by drummer Arlen Thompson and augmented with the sound manipulations and synth surges of Hadji Bakara. After a handful of self-released EPs, their 2005 full-length debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, put them on the Pitchfork crowd's radar, thanks in part to the band's signing to Sub Pop via then–A&R liaison/Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock.
Like NMH's Aeroplane, Apologies was an indisputable, if slow-burning, psych-pop masterpiece. And also much like Aeroplane, its strength as a creative work came from its confounding marriage of sorrowful, somber minor tones and uplifting major chords. Critics fawned, a rabid cult following began to flourish, and a nomination for Canada's prestigious Polaris Music Prize followed in 2006, as did a high-profile tour with their friends in a rising Montreal band called Arcade Fire. On sophomore effort At Mount Zoomer (2008), the pair continued their approach, trading vocal roles on surreal pop-rock compositions, laced heavily with percolating synth and the slightly more prominent presence of Krug's lysergic keys.
As for any self-perceived associations with Mangum's lauded legacy, Boeckner understands the correlations, but has mixed feelings about the lasting effects of Aeroplane. "I loved that album when it came out," he recalls while speaking via cell in a strip-mall parking lot in Newport, Ky. "It inspired a lot of bands in great ways and ushered in this whole indie-rock era, but in retrospect it also had a real negative influence. It [led to] a lot of things I just can't stand about indie rock, like unnecessary 'wacky' instruments. Like French horns, for no reason. They did it well, but generally, French horns for no reason is a bad idea."
Expo 86 is a French horn- and frill-free collection of songs, recorded almost entirely live in drummer Thompson's studio, marked by a decidedly sunnier disposition and a more straightforward approach than the band's earlier catalogue. "We tried to not fall down the rabbit hole with this one," affirms Thompson, chatting from his Montreal home a few weeks ago. "We wanted to keep things relatively concise and not get too far up our own asses."
For fans of the band's more embellished works, Expo 86 may initially hit the palate with less nuance than they've come to expect. That said, the songwriting is solid, especially on songs like the guitar-heavy lead single "What Did My Lover Say?" and dance-floor driver "Ghost Pressure." Vocally, Boeckner sounds more focused than ever, having fully matured into his own voice after years of emulating some unusual idols.
"When I started playing music, I was playing in hardcore bands," he explains. "I really got into the K Records stuff. Unwound was my all-time favorite band. I got New Plastic Ideas on cassette when I was in 7th grade. I started a band that was basically a cross between Unwound and a [less-skilled] Drive Like Jehu, because we weren't good enough to be as amazing as they were."
Disappointment with the limitations of the punk scene eventually led Boeckner to more bucolic pastures. "I started out doing the hardcore screaming thing, but I eventually became disillusioned with the whole hardcore scene, and started listening to country music," he says. "Country was basically the first non-new music I got into. Punk music can be really dogmatic about what records you can listen to, and I was getting into Hank Williams. I really wanted to learn how to sing like that, and I think that's where the sad lonesomeness comes in."
And while the sad lonesomeness that earned Neutral Milk Hotel a permanent place in the indie-rock canon is likely destined to remain an artifact of the past, Wolf Parade don't plan to follow them to an early exit, if for no other reason than that they're happy keeping things simple and on their own terms.
"I do think In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of the greatest modern records recorded, but it did usher in a era of work that was super-precious and all 'I'm a genius,' and I can't pull that off, you know?", says Boeckner. "But we really enjoy playing with each other, and we've managed to keep things under our control and without a lot of bullshit.
"Besides," he laughs, "it's not like I have a backup plan."